For the Nipponzan Myohoji, chanting is a practice of social transformation.
Photography by FRED LEBLANC
SISTER CLARE CARTER seems like other kindly Buddhist nuns I’ve encountered along the way, just not quite. Her face and manner are warm and open as she welcomes the peace activist Paula Green and me into the old converted barn she shares with two monks and uncounted squirrels in Leverett, Massachusetts. She talks with Green, a friend who lives nearby, and me about this and that in an endearing Boston accent that makes me wonder whether she might have joined one of the Catholic orders dedicated to service had her life unfolded differently. There isn’t a nanosecond of awkwardness or unfriendliness, no hint of the gap between her life and mine. What I’m noticing, I think, is the mindful formality that isn’t there.
Over a cup of tea at her house before we came here, Green told me to expect kindness. “They are very humble and embracing of others,” Green said of Sister Clare and the other two members of this outpost of the Nipponzan Myohoji, a small and little-known sect of Nichiren Buddhism. “There is tremendous selflessness, which is very moving,” Green said. “There is no pushing people to do this or believe that.”
Green told me she’d gotten to know Sister Clare and her brother monks in 1983, when they moved onto donated land to build the first Peace Pagoda in North America. Back then she was so impressed by the gentle, nonconfrontational way the head monk dealt with initial opposition in the surrounding community that she invited the tiny order to sleep on her floor while they got the barn ready and cleared land.
“I was very drawn to their commitment to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons, to their vows of poverty and simplicity, and to their very strong political beliefs in social change,” she said. Admitting that their practice of chanting and drumming doesn’t take her as deeply as the Vipassana, or insight, meditation she practices, Green credited the monks with getting her going in her own peace work by showing her what serious commitment looks like.
As Green says goodbye to Sister Clare to head off to the airport and her own kind of peace work, I note the offerings stacked around a dimly lit room: boxes of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, jars of peanut butter, protein bars. In his collection of dharma talks, Tranquil Is This Realm of Mine, Nichidatsu Fujii, the sect’s Japanese founder (who died in 1985 at 100) writes, “Those who are successful at Nipponzan are those who do not mind a life in poverty, for whom food is not an issue.” What to have for dinner was clearly not a big subject of debate here.
Ordained as a monk at nineteen years old, Fujii became an ardent disciple of the 13th-century Japanese sage Nichiren, who taught his followers that they could realize the whole of the Buddha’s teachings by chanting the daimoku, the seven syllables of the title of the Lotus Sutra—or more precisely, “Veneration to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law”—Namu-myoho-renge-kyo.
By 1917, Guruji, as Fujii was commonly know, had committed himself to a path of total nonviolence. His life’s mission would be spreading peace by walking the world beating a hand-held drum and chanting the daimoku. When the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima— on August 6, 1945, his 60th birthday—the horrific event supercharged Guruji’s mission to bring peace to the world, and he directed his focus to removing nuclear weapons. He urged his monks and nuns not to chant for personal happiness but to consider the chant big medicine “meant to be spread through the world to quench the flames of modern warfare.”
The New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusetts Photo © Fred LeBlanc
Guruji’s hard monastic practice is not the way of the Soka Gakkai, a more popular form of Nichiren Buddhism. [For more on the Soka Gakkai, see the interview with Daisaku Ikeda, "Faith in Revolution."]
They are up by 5:00 a.m. every day, circumambulating their Peace Pagoda in all weather, performing hours of rituals in addition to attending to every detail of their physical property and their lives. They spend months every year walking the globe, beating their drums and chanting. Sister Clare has walked from this place to South Africa, and this past winter the nun, who is in her late fifties, walked from here to Washington, D.C., then from Hiroshima to Tokyo, protesting a movement to remilitarize Japan.
“They walk twenty miles a day at a fast pace and sleep in basements, in churches, wherever they can,” Green had told me. “They walk their talk, literally.”
The name “Guruji” came from Mahatma Gandhi, whom Nichidatsu met in 1933 while fulfilling a vow to bring the “Supreme Dharma” (“Myoho”) back to India from Japan. As for Gandhi, according to a granddaughter, Sumitra G. Kulkarni, the great Indian leader took up Guruji’s drum and made the daimoku part of his ashram’s morning and evening prayers.
SISTER CLARE leads me through the woods toward the Peace Pagoda. We talk a little. Even though I know she is not walking fast by her standards, the judgment pops up that she is too quick and light. I realize the pace and the friendly patter is jostling against a memory I have of walking next to the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn during a weeklong retreat in upstate New York. The Vietnamese Zen teacher had glided along silently and slowly, as if he were on rails. He seemed very concentrated, literally, like he was made of some super-dense material so that he could not be moved.